Jurisfiction: Law as a Work of Art Jennifer Culbert Birkbeck School of Law Tuesday 3-5pm 20 November 2018

Birkbeck Centre for Law and the Humanities is delighted to present a performance lecture by Margareta Kern (Birkbeck School of Law Artist in Residence 2018-19) on November 8th, and the Centre’s annual lecture by Jennifer Culbert (Johns Hopkins University) on November 20th. Details are below. All welcome, please spread the word!


Centre for Law and the Humanities Annual Lecture:

Jurisfiction: Law as a Work of Art

Jennifer Culbert


Tuesday 20 November, 3-5pm

30 Russell Square, Room 101, Bloomsbury, London, WC1B 5TD


Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and Jacques Derrida make strange bedfellows. However, as I show in this talk, both men insist, in Derrida’s words, “We must remain ignorant of who or what or where the law is, we must not know who it is or what it is, where and how it presents itself, whence it comes and whence it speaks” (“Before the Law” 204). As then-Judge Kavanaugh put it in his first set of hearings before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee as part of his confirmation process, “legislative history is useful for understanding why something came to be, but not as a tool for upsetting or – or changing your interpretation of the words of the statute.” As a “textualist,” he subscribes to the position that “if we are going to exercise judgment, not will, we need to adhere to the law as passed. And the law as passed is reflected in the written words that were – went through both houses and signed by the president.” He notes, “the legislative history…are not part of the law as passed.”


In this talk, I will argue that law, as demonstrated by both Justice Kavanaugh and Derrida, is a work of art. As a work of art, what guides or binds our conduct or action is a rule, custom, or practice that, for all intents and purposes, appears as if out of nowhere. For the law stands alone, apart from its author(s), at a remove from any origin. It is not the product of reason or even skill but rather, in Plato’s words, “an imitation of a phantasm.” To make this observation is not, in this talk at least, to criticize or condemn the law for being irrational, irrelevant, or poorly made. Rather, it is to start drawing a picture of law as a fabrication or fiction, inspired by Hannah Arendt’s political theory and concept of “work.” It is also to take up playfully but with renewed seriousness critical evaluation of legislation and legal interpretation in terms of aesthetic judgment.


Jennifer L. Culbert is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. She received her PhD from the Rhetoric department at UC Berkeley and taught at Arizona State University as well as Amherst College. At Johns Hopkins University, she teaches courses in political theory and law. She has interests in a wide range of subjects, including state violence, jurisprudence, ethics, judgment, aesthetics, and language. She has written articles and book chapters on revenge, mercy, pain, capital punishment, metaphysics, the philosophy of becoming, and law and literature. She is the author of Dead Certainty: The Death Penalty and the Problem of Judgment (Stanford University Press, 2008) and the co-editor, with Austin Sarat, of States of Violence: War, Capital Punishment, and Letting Die (Cambridge University Press, 2009). She is currently writing a book tentatively called Jurisfiction: Hannah Arendt and Law as a Work of Art. In 2008-2009, she was a fellow at the Murphy Institute in the Center for Ethics and Public Affairs at Tulane University, and in 2011 she was a recipient of the Berlin Prize at the American Academy in Berlin, Germany. In 2018, she was recognized by the Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities with the James B. White Award for the originality and excellence of her contributions to the field and her commitment to the interdisciplinary study of law, culture and the humanities.


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